Initiative aims to spread awareness of toxic drug supply amongst post-secondary students
As students return to campus, the provincial government says that it is important more than ever for students to be aware of the risks of drug use. On Sept. 8, they announced that they are extending their Toxic Drugs are Circulating campaign into the fall to help spread that awareness.
Sheila Malcomson, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, says the province is working with post-secondary institutions to target students across the province.
“This is a focus and a campaign that our government has been pushing out for a number of years,” Malcomson said. “We’re feeling especially imperative as students return to campus — we need to inform them about safe substance use and let them know about resources and tools that are available to avoid overdose.”
The campaign uses a combination of social media ads, digital notices, and physical fliers pinned to message boards. The ads include information on alternatives to street drugs, where to find naloxone, and what to do in case of an overdose.
The campaign was originally initiated in August and ran province wide. The extension is meant to specifically target post-secondary students returning to campus.
With more than five people dying from overdose every day in B.C., Malcolmson says that there is still a lot of work to be done. She hopes this campaign can help students use safely as roughly half of all overdoses in the province happen to people under the age of 40.
“It’s something that people with lived experience [of drug use], were really explicit with me about…they said ‘we’re especially concerned about the naive, new user that are maybe just starting for the first time.’”
In April, the province announced they would apply to the federal government for an exemption to decriminalize illicit drug possession for personal use under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The City of Vancouver has also filed their own application. It has also expanded access to prescribed safe supply.
In a press release, the province said that, in addition to the campaign, it has taken steps over the last two years to address the overdose crisis and its impact on young people. In April, 2020, it launched Here2Talk, a dedicated 24/7 mental health line for post-secondary students. The government says it has also expanded access to naloxone and expanded the operation of Foundry Centres, which provide counselling and peer support to youth 24 and under.
The most recent provincial budget, released in April, included an additional $500 million for mental health and addictions services over the next three years. Included in this investment was $97 million for mental health supports targeting children, youth, and young adults.
“It’s time to move beyond the ‘just say no’ messaging of yesterday because we know that some students will decide to use drugs at some point,” Associate Vice President, AMS Student Society of UBC Vancouver James Cabangon said in the press release.
UVic has also taken steps in recent years to promote safe drug use to students. The university has its own naloxone kit located in the basement of the SUB and the UVSS regularly organizes training sessions for students. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverses the impacts of an overdose by restoring normal breathing.
Several students also recently founded a harm reduction club to promote awareness of ways to reduce harms associated with drug use such as drug checking and safe supply. The club features workshops and lectures by guest speakers as well as information sessions on how to help drug users.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the overdose crisis as many drug users are seeking out illicit supplies and using alone, increasing the risk of overdose. Health authorities have also sent out warnings about the increased toxicity of the drug supply as dealers attempt to maintain their profits with cheaper and deadlier fillers.
Some researchers and public health officials, however, have said that the province and the federal government aren’t doing enough to end the overdose crisis and that while measures such as decriminalization will help, the process isn’t happening quickly enough.
“These are big ships that are turning around slowly and they need to turn around quickly,” B.C’s Chief Coroner Lisa LaPointe said in a press conference in August. “The programs that are in effect now are not working and what we need is to be courageous, innovative, and ramp up in a very big way.”
Malcolmson has defended the progress made by the government, stating that April’s provincial budget made the largest contribution to mental health and addictions in the province’s history. She says that at the moment one of the crucial needs is to make sure people have the information they need to use safely.
“This is one of the many ways that we can turn the tide on the poisoned drug crisis,” she said. “Letting people know what kind of support information is available for them early on, I know this can save lives.”